On December 16, 2016, a monumental season of grief met me in a gripping fashion. I had preached a now published a sermon, “The Gospel of Prophetic Grief” at the Festival of Young Preachers in Lexington, Kentucky on January 3, 2017– 17 days after my father had succumbed to degenerative Huntington’s Disease. This occurred nearly 17 days before the incumbent president, known as 45 or D.T., was sworn in as the next president of the United States. From a personal standpoint and a socially pragmatic perspective, a traumatic period of subsequent grief prompted an avalanche of enraging emotions within me.
Admittedly, I was infuriated. There were questions of theodicy regarding my father’s passing while grappling with the fact that someone who is antithetical to American democracy was elected to the most powerful office in the land and world. I began to fiercely wrestle in my faith, as I would label the struggle — prophetic grief — one to be embraced and not avoided. Prophetic grief produces a sense of redemptive rejection.
In a humbled spiritual location and an uncertain socio-political climate, prophetic grief arrests the soul and raises awareness of spirit. I surmise that the specific root cause of prophetic grief in America evinces itself in Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s 1968 speech at Grosse Point High School in Grosse Point Farms, Michigan:
It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.
Sociologist Kubler Ross clearly delineates the stages of grief in five integral phases. Here, I will outline the elements of prophetic grief and propose a perspective through which to view this dilemma:
Essential to the process of prophetic grief, bewildering denial is by definition is a devoid acceptance of reality. Denial is one of the longest stages in the grieving process. Over the course of the last four years, many of us who have pursued advocacy for equal justice for all were in denial that our boycotting, protests, sermons, and writings. Our persistent work and tireless effort were perceived as pointless. We, as African-Americans, have more recently encountered and have witnessed cases of police brutality and unmasked, white nationalist rallies under the guised, recycled slogan — Make America Great Again. Not just painful but traumatic, the element of denial has became an intrinsic part of American identity.
The next phase in the process of prophetic grief is anger. Anger is in this regard cannot be misdirected only utilized for motivating us all to act and respond proactively. It is not necessarily a full sense of righteous indignation but cathartic. Yet, it is also the most misinterpreted phase of the grieving process. Anger, or even righteous indignation, has been demonstrated through the looting stores by protestors rioting across the United States — particularly the Midwest. Heed again to the words of the 20th century prophet-theologian concerning anger in the context of civil unrest:
But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear?
— Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., excerpt from the speech, The Other America
A shift happens in the bargaining phase of grief. I would identify this as the “transition point” or climax in the process. Perhaps, bargaining is the re-imagining wherein possibilities are re-envisioned. This is individual and collective in some cases. Here, we begin to gradually transition from sorrow to serenity, void to completion and from beginning to middle. Possibilities are evaluated and identified accordingly during the phase of bargaining.
This is an inevitable phase of the grieving process. If not properly treated, it can be a very gruesome phase. The mental location thereof is daunting, deafening, and debilitating to an extent. It is the place of sheer hopelessness and doubtful thinking. Depression attaches to heavy deadweight that locks the capacity of the mind. We, who fight for justice and equality in various ways, have sunken to a feeling and perspective of justice as a subconscious thought.
Acceptance is the first part of affirming the truth. Time is the key determinant in this phase of the journey. However, it takes a long period of elapsed time to arrive here. This element is two-fold: 1) accepting the social realities that are; 2) accepting that there is the possibility of something better— a fresher reality, a just society and a more ethical world to live in. As a “justice-warrior”, my perspective of hope is founded upon the lyrics of a famous song by the donned King of Soul, Sam Cooke:
The Glimmer of Hope Beyond Grief
Grief is inevitable. Prophetic grief happens when we mourn with those who suffer and for the souls of others — born, reborn and unborn. Prophetic grief is pastoral. This type of grief drives us to think openly and act differently. It is more than a feeling but an urgent call to corrective action. Prophetic grief calls into question the integrity of democracy. Prophetic grief pushes us to shift our intentionality from kindred to “kin-dom”. We have the opportunity to retain the ability to grieve with others as they mourn as well as celebrate with others as they successfully achieve their goals and thrive prosperously. There is a productive beauty in prophetic grief. We must choose to embrace or ignore the power thereof.